Unionizing Amazon

Today Amazon managed to defeat a unionization effort at their Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, by a margin of 2 to 1. This has not gone down well with the pro-union folks:

Why are they so upset? Ah, pull up a chair and let's review the recent (and not so recent) history of unionization drives in tech.


You can't talk about Amazon without also talking about The Dread Pirate Bezos. Jeff Bezos is an unmitigated genius, but also not one to tolerate threats to his businesses. Any attempt at unionization of the workforce - yielding a significant amount of control from Bezos to union leads - is going to get shut down pretty damn quick.

Parenthetically, my favorite Bezos story came from ex-Amazon engineer Steve Yegge in a rant about the way that Amazon really got platforms (and Google didn't):

His [Bezos] Big Mandate went something along these lines:

1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
[...various tech points elided...]
6. Anyone who doesn't do this will be fired.
7. Thank you; have a nice day!

Ha, ha! You 150-odd ex-Amazon folks here will of course realize immediately that #7 was a little joke I threw in, because Bezos most definitely does not give a shit about your day.
#6, however, was quite real, so people went to work.
Had Bessemer actually voted to unionize, I could well imagine Bezos closing down the facility in the not-too-distant future - I'm sure he'd have offered plausible reasons, but the real message would be to other Amazon workplaces. "We're quite happy to lose money in the short term to avoid having unions directing our business. Are you happy to lose your jobs?"

But why does Jeff care so much about unionization?


In the fascinating 1998 book "Inside Intel" there was a great case study of how a major tech company reacts to a unionization effort. If memory serves, this was in a chip fabrication plant ("fab") with hourly-paid workers - might have been in Oregon, I don't recall - and it was a push by a national union to get the local workforce unionized. The plant manager realized this was a big issue, contacted Intel senior management, and they pitched in a bunch of people and resources to counter the unionization campaign. The management's key objective was: "we need to do everything we can to prevent the plant unionizing, but we can't let them know how much we care about it. The vote was in Intel's favor, and the union moved on.

So why did Intel management care so much about unionization?


Last year the Alphabet Workers' Union spun up, which now has 800+ members across Google and the other companies in Alphabet (the parent firm). At the moment it's purely voluntary membership and doesn't - as far as I can tell - have any official status in work conditions/pay negotiation.

A clue to their motivations comes from their home page:

Our union of 800+ members strives to protect Alphabet workers, our global society, and our world. We promote solidarity, democracy, and social and economic justice.
This might hint at why Google/Alphabet is so wary of unionization.


Apple has maintained a very solid anti-union front. The one case I could find is where their shuttle bus drivers successfully unionized - no other instances I could locate had unions appearing at Apple stores or corporate workplaces.

So what does Tim Cook have against unionization?

Why does Big Tech hate unions?

It's quite simple at one level. The effect of unionization of your workforce is that you give up some amount of control, and bear some level of increased costs and lower efficiency. If you've got a large workforce of low-to-medium wage semi-skilled workers - e.g. Amazon warehouse staff, Intel fab plant staff - and you're constantly honing processes to improve your margin, the last thing you want is a union-imposed drag on your bang-per-buck.

The more interesting question comes when you're looking at a skilled, expensive workforce. Unionization isn't going to materially affect your wage bill for a highly technical workforce in an active competitive recruitment market. However, it will prove a distraction, and possibly a major one, because the union wants to tap into your workforce's salary - 1% union dues on an average wage of $100K turns out to be quite a lot of money for a 5,000-person company, let alone a 50,000 person company - and to justify this, they need to show that they're doing something.

So inevitably the union is going to be dragging your company's managerial layers into prolonged wage and conditions negotiations, pursuing pet causes, trying to eject people that they regard as "undesirable" - e.g. anti-union, pro-business - while trying to retain people that management regards as "undesirable" - e.g. ineffective, spending too much time on pet causes. They're going to seek "equity" of salaries - looking for differentials by gender, race and age and poking at anomalies. Their executive is looking for a steady income stream and an increasing amount of power, and they're not going to take "no" for an answer.

The unionization struggle, I think, is going to be over approximately 1-2 years after a union gains a significant foothold in a major tech company. The highly productive people are going to see the brake on company productivity in general, and their salaries in particular, and go looking for employment somewhere they don't have to carry as many passengers. In the mean time, the company is going to burn.

If you don't believe me, look at the car manufacturers in Detroit.


  1. Am I right in thinking that if they had voted to unionise in Alabama then all the workers would have had to join and pay for the union? It all seems very odd from the UK, where closed shops are a thing of the past, thankfully.

  2. Gasman: in Alabama, no, it's what's referred to as a "Right to Work" state: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-to-work_law#U.S._states_with_right-to-work_laws . Unions aren't allowed to have "union security" agreements with employees which would compel employees to join the union - which is what I believe the UK "closed shop" was like.

    Had the union won the vote in Bessemer, individual Bessemer employees could still have chosen not to join the union - but Amazon would have been forced to negotiate salaries, workplace conditions etc. for anyone who chose to join. If you were a slacker, the union would have looked very tempting.


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